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Former Pasco paralegal who spent clients' money faces new troubles

It took years of promises and deadlines and courthouse negotiations and money — lots of money — for Kristen Collins to get the deal she did, and it was a sweet one: To serve 18 months on house arrest and 10 years probation for swindling legal clients out of more than $72,000.

Now, it appears the deal, which was finalized just 15 months ago, could be in jeopardy after Collins, 34, of Holiday, was arrested last week on charges of violating her probation.

Collins lied to her probation officer about where she was working, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. She said she worked in marketing, but actually worked as a vet tech at Gregory Veterinary Clinic in Tampa, a report states. Authorities said Collins also admitted she didn't tell her employer about her probation status — even though such a disclosure was a condition of her probation.

"Her whereabouts on days she claimed to work in marketing are unaccounted for," her arrest report stated.

Collins was working as a paralegal for her former best friend, attorney Jessica Miller, when clients at Miller's Port Richey law firm complained of being cheated. The duo were investigated in 2006 and accused of stealing more than $72,000 from clients. Authorities said some of the money came from trust accounts they were supposed to protect; some was paid to Miller for services she never provided.

Collins and Miller spent the money on shopping trips to Macy's, Dillard's, Victoria's Secret, Walmart, and Publix, investigators said, and paid for a vacation to a South Carolina resort for the firm's employees and their families.

The women blamed each other. Miller was disbarred. Both pleaded guilty to four counts of grand theft. The victimized clients were mostly repaid out of a fund administered by the Florida Bar, but Miller and Collins had to repay the money to the Bar.

Miller brought the judge deciding her fate $250 she got from holding a yard sale. She was sentenced to four years in prison. Her estimated release date from prison is in March 2014.

Collins was prepared to testify against Miller at trial and brought $20,000 in restitution to court. At one hearings back in December 2010, Collins sobbed and begged Circuit Judge Michael Andrews to not send her to prison. Collins has four children and told Andrews that her husband doesn't make enough money to support the family without her. Collins begged to continue working and to serve jail on weekends. She said she would be in jail every weekend for five years if that's what Andrews wanted.

"I am willing to do anything to pay these people back," she said. "I will do whatever it takes to make them whole."

Andrews was inclined to give her 23 months in prison, but postponed sentencing. The State Attorney's Office wanted Collins to also serve prison time, but at a hearing in September 2011, one of the victims had a change of heart. Stanley McEwen wanted to make sure the money was repaid, so Collins was offered this deal — no prison time, just house arrest and probation — if she could continue paying restitution.

That deal could be jeopardized, however, if a judge determines Collins violated her probation. The State Attorney's Office did not return calls Wednesday to see what this new arrest could mean for her future. Collins, who was divorced in June according to court records, was released from the Pasco jail Wednesday afternoon. The phone number she listed on her arrest report is disconnected.

At one sentencing hearing, Andrews threatened Collins. The judge said if she got in trouble again, he would give her the maximum sentence:

Forty years in prison.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6229.

Former Pasco paralegal who spent clients' money faces new troubles 12/05/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 8:44pm]
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